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Do You Suffer from Quarter-end Choke?

It’s mid-March, mid-June, mid-September, or worst of all: late November. Your sales numbers are not where you want them to be. Hot prospects have cooled off. Your manager is pushing like mad. You feel like your brain and confidence are crawling through thick mud.

That, my friends, is supposedly a choke, to which I say baloney! To understand why it’s baloney, and how to avoid the situation, we have to start with the origins of a “choke.”

The Origin of “Choking Up” in Sales and Why it Matters

Like many other sales performance concepts, to “choke” comes straight from sports. The idea is you’re competing in a game. The score is close, you (or your team) are behind or ahead by just a little bit. What’s key to the concept is there’s no sense of an inevitable win or loss, instead, there’s pressure surrounding the game. To “choke” is to be so nervous under that pressure your performance suffers and you lose.

What does that have to do with selling? Good salespeople supposedly thrive under pressure. That’s true. However, there are all kinds of pressure, which leads us to why the origin of this particular pressure (sports) matters.

That there are many other sales concepts which come from sports does not overcome this singular fact: selling is not a sport. Embracing that reality is step one in handling the challenge of trouble at quarter-end.

Effective Selling Has its Own Language: Use it

Step two is speaking the right language. Frankly, using sports analogies or concepts is not just less effective, it’s lazy. Managers and reps should be able to communicate in clear, direct language. When managers and reps can describe what they’re doing in clear language, they can also:

  • Give and take direction
  • Make changes to that direction quickly
  • Teach others what works well
  • Pinpoint the source of problems
  • Solve sales problems

Sales Performance Has its Own Structure and Process

Using sports analogies or concepts in selling is also misleading. In this case, we’re saying reps who sell enough late in the period to hit or exceed quota are special. We’re also saying not doing that is worse than missing quota: these reps presumably have a personal flaw (they “choke”). Step three is to understand why neither of those beliefs actually hold true in selling.

Sales success rarely fits into discrete periods analogous to a one-hour game (or four-hour game if you include golf and motorsports). Sales success or failure takes place over much longer periods of time: a month, quarter, year, etc.

This also means the lead-up to the end of the period is longer. What sales reps do within that entire period makes the greatest difference — the rest is likely to be luck, one way or another. What’s more, reps who work diligently throughout the period (month, quarter, etc.) tend to have stronger overall sales performance. Reps who work hardest on scrambling toward the end of the period usually have spotty performance, as well as burn out more often.

The difference between those two approaches is often based on the manager, not the reps, which brings us to the action steps that help avoid “choking.”

Managers: How to Prevent Reps From Choking

Be careful not to praise last-minute success. This is easy to do accidentally by saying things like, “Josh pulled it off in the final week!” Just say, “Josh made quota.”

Manage efforts and activities that lead up to sales success, not just the end result. For example, check and manage reps’ calling efforts weekly (not just closed deals). This is especially important for new reps and/or a team that is not performing well.

Pay attention to reps who regularly have more sales toward the end of the period than they do early on. Again: these reps tend not to do well over time. Consider coaching to boost or manage their activities which generate sales. In addition, look for possible prospect-stealing. I’m sorry to say reps who seem to suddenly do well are sometimes acquiring deals that don’t belong to them.

Pay attention to reps who seem to get more anxious toward the end of the period, as well. Check throughout the period on activities which generate sales. Set goals for these activities, provide coaching, and praise them when those goals are reached. This helps them sustain needed activities and learn healthy emotional habits along the way.

Reps: How to Avoid Choking

If you’re in a sports-oriented environment you may have to remind yourself the analogies flying around do not truly apply. Beyond that, know your strengths and weaknesses.

Are you someone who has tended to focus on the end of a time-frame? For example, did you regularly cram for exams and stay up all night writing papers? As exciting as the rush of last-minute-success may feel, this kind of approach won’t work well in sales over the long term. Start applying your efforts much earlier:

  • Force yourself to focus on activities which generate sales so you build sustainable habits. It helps to set goals for these (e.g., a calling goal per day, or number of networking events per month), and to track your success in reaching these instead of quota alone.
  • Get your manager or a peer to help you stay on track, if needed. Be sure to give the efforts time to sink in and feel natural.

Are you someone who feels anxious toward the end of a time-frame? For example, did you worry you would not meet deadlines no matter when you began a paper? Don’t let the performance-under-pressure mythology get to you. That’s probably not your style and trying to adopt it won’t work well over the long term. Stick to working throughout the period to generate sales:

  • Force yourself to focus on activities which generate sales, not the quota. To sustain productive habits, set goals for those activities (e.g., a calling goal per day, or number of networking events per month), and track your success in reaching these in addition to quota.
  • Get your manager or a peer to support you in these efforts, if needed.

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